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In 1952, the Villa Theatre was showing Cinerama movies.

Fifty years ago this week, Salt Lakers attending the premiere of "The Robe" at either the Lyric Theatre downtown or the Villa Theatre on Highland Drive were the first to locally experience the new widescreen process known as CinemaScope.

It was billed as "The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses!" — to let moviegoers know that CinemaScope was not to be confused with the 3-D films that had flooded theaters throughout much of 1953.

It was also Hollywood's latest desperate attempt to stay the tide of falling box-office receipts caused by the ever-increasing popularity of television, as the studios experimented with ways to entice customers away from the little black box and back into theaters.

Up to this point, the various ingenious methods moviemakers had tried were just gimmicks that gave the industry a short-term shot in the arm but didn't necessarily serve the art of visual storytelling.

1. A year earlier, "This Is Cinerama" had created a sensation in New York, using three synchronized projectors to project a spectacular 146-degree panoramic image on a huge curved screen, which put the viewing audience into the middle of the picture.

But the process was so expensive to install — requiring extensive remodeling of the theater auditorium — that only the largest populated cities had a Cinerama theater.

Still, wherever "This Is Cinerama" opened, customers flocked to experience the visual sensation it provided.

To more immediately reach out to the masses, Hollywood's quick fix was to reintroduce movies shot in 3-D, a gimmick that had first been used briefly in the 1930s for some short films.

By overlapping two images on the screen and having the viewer wear polaroid glasses, each eye would detect a separate image that appeared to give the picture depth and roundness. Polaroid glasses were a great improvement over the red-and-green glasses previously used (though were revived for the recent "Spy Kids 3-D").

Beginning with "Bwana Devil" in late 1952, and after the Vincent Price thriller "House of Wax" in April 1953, the onslaught of 3-D thrills came fast and thick. If it wasn't "a lion in your lap" or "a lover in your arms," it would be ping-pong balls or flaming arrows — anything to give the sensation of something coming right off the screen and into the audience.

Most of the studios cashed in quickly by turning out cheap B-movies in 3-D, which could get into theaters fast, while taking their time to develop more prestigious 3-D films, such as Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder," John Wayne's "Hondo," Rita Hayworth in "Miss Sadie Thompson" and "Kiss Me Kate." But by the time those films were ready for release, moviegoers had tired of the gimmick, preferring films shown "flat," minus the 3-D process.

Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox remembered a widescreen process that had been offered to the studios in 1927, at the end of the silent era. Burdened with the heavy cost of converting to sound just as the Great Depression arrived, there had been no interest in changing the screen size, as well.

What made the process enticing to Fox in 1953 was its ability to "squeeze" an image that was 2 1/2 times as wide onto a normal strip of 35mm film. Using a single projector, instead of the three required for Cinerama, a widescreen movie could be projected in any theater that installed a new screen and used an "anamorphic" lens to properly spread out the squeezed image.

Fox dubbed its "new" anamorphic system CinemaScope and boldly announced that all future Fox films would be shot in this widescreen process.

Other studios were invited to license the process for their major productions, and demonstrations were set up in New York at the Roxy Theater on a newly installed screen, 68 feet in width, to let theater owners see the dramatic impact offered by CinemaScope (especially when paired with a four-track stereophonic sound system).

In Salt Lake City, the Lyric and Villa theaters were the first to take the gamble. By June 1953, the Villa had installed a huge screen, measuring 53 feet in width, in preparation for the Sept. 30 opening of "The Robe," the first CinemaScope film.

Based on a novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, "The Robe" is about a Roman Tribune (played by Richard Burton) who is put in charge of the crucifixion of Christ. The film cost some $5 million to produce — a hefty sum at the time — and proved a successful choice to introduce the widescreen process.

A capacity crowd sat spellbound as Alfred Newman's stirring score filled the Villa auditorium. The screen credits appeared over gold-trimmed wide-colored drapes that opened to reveal the splendor that was once Emperor Tiberius' Rome. As the story moved to the turbulence of Jerusalem at the time of Christ and back to pagan Rome, the new film process enhanced the dramatic experience.

Fortunately for 20th Century Fox, which already had $42 million worth of product awaiting release, audiences worldwide embraced the CinemaScope process. By the time "The Robe" opened, some 1,500 theaters in the United States had already installed new screens and purchased anamorphic projection lenses, which cost $2,800 a pair — at a time when a starter home could be purchased for $5,000.

After 60 years in a standard format, movie screens were changing shape.

By November 1953, after just six weeks of release, "The Robe" had grossed $8 million and was well on its way to earning an unprecedented $50 million worldwide. (The top ticket price in Salt Lake City at the time was $1.50.)

Fox followed "The Robe" with CinemaScope releases of "How to Marry a Millionaire," starring Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall, and "Beneath the 12 Mile Reef," with Robert Wagner and Terry Moore, in November and December, respectively.

In January 1954, MGM released its first CinemaScope picture, "Knights of the Round Table," starring Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner, and then, in March, "Rose Marie," with Howard Keel and Ann Blyth. Other studios also followed suit, in a remarkably short period of time producing important films in the new viewer-friendly format. Only Paramount held out, instead developing its own system, VistaVision.

Later, there would be widescreen films shot in various 70mm formats — Todd-AO, Super Panavision 70, Dimension 150 and many others. In 1966, CinemaScope gave way to Panavision, which used the same technique with greatly improved lenses (and which remains the standard widescreen format for worldwide use today). More recently, such specialty "large-screen" formats as IMAX and SuperScreen have also found a niche.

Today, the Lyric is gone and the Villa is closed, an electronic version of the anamorphic system is used for professional and home-video cameras, and a new breed of widescreen TVs are in common use. And some DVDs automatically adapt widescreen films to fill widescreen televisions.

All this in the first 100 years of the motion-picture industry. Who knows what further movie-viewing changes the future may hold?


Hunter Hale is one of the programmers for the Organ Loft's silent-movie series.

E-MAIL: VisUnita@aol.com